Captain of the host nation’s team, and one of the biggest names in world football, Neymar de Silva Santos Junior arrived at Rio 2016 as the star in waiting of the men’s Olympic football tournament. From the quickest goal ever scored in Olympic history to the decisive penalty in a dramatic final shootout that ended Brazil’s half-century quest for gold, Neymar stole the show.
Long before his move to European giants Barcelona from Brazilian club Santos, back in 2013, Neymar was being hailed as the heir to Pele’s crown. With brilliant skills, and vision beyond his years, he was a natural goal scorer, seemingly unfazed by any stage.
In Spain with his club, the 24-year-old now lines up with Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez in an all-South American forward line that is one of the most potent and exciting that the world has ever seen. And he has helped Barcelona to continued success – winning the ‘treble’ (La Liga, Copa del Rey and the UEFA Champions League) in 2015 and then the league and cup double once again in 2016. However, with his national team, similar glories had eluded him going into Rio 2016. And Brazil, as the host nation and five times world champions, was absolutely desperate to end its quest for the Olympic gold.
All eyes were on their ‘captain fantastic’ Neymar. Would he be able to take destiny by the scruff of the neck and guide Brazil to the gold medal that it so desperately craved? The answer was, quite emphatically, yes.
Having said that, during the preliminary stage, a gold medal for the host nation looked a remote prospect. While their defence was certainly not in doubt – with three clean sheets in their first three group games – goals were a problem. Two scoreless draws against relatively modest opponents South Africa and Iraq, left everyone asking whether the burden of expectation was proving too much for Neymar and his team-mates? Despite a resounding 4-0 victory over Denmark in their final group game, which was enough to see them into the knockout stages, Neymar remained without a goal.
However, great players often come good when the going gets serious. So it was in the quarter-finals, where Brazil took on neighbours Colombia, a team with real pedigree. However, Neymar took control of the game, inspiring Brazil to a 2-0 victory, and scoring the first goal with a trademark free-kick after just 12 minutes.
In Brazil’s semi-final against Honduras he was even quicker to get off the mark – in fact his goal after just 14 seconds was the quickest ever scored in over 100 years of Olympic football history. And it opened the floodgates as the hosts went on to secure a 6-0 victory, with Neymar orchestrating the rout, and also grabbing the last goal from the penalty spot.
In the final, played in front of 63.000 spectators at Rio’s Maracana Stadium, Brazil lined up against Germany, whose senior team had inflicted the trauma of a 7-1 defeat in the semi-final of the FIFA World Cup two years earlier. Neymar had not played in that game. Now though he had centre stage and he had found his scoring feet. The Brazil captain scored the opening goal with another brilliant free-kick, only to see the Germans equalise early in the second half.
Eventually the final went to extra time and then a penalty shoot-out. With each team having taken and scored their first four penalties, and Nils Petersen missing Germany’s fifth, Neymar stepped up to take the most important kick of his life. Seemingly oblivious to the pressure, he coolly placed the ball into the back of the net, before sinking to his knees. Neymar had earned the right to claim Olympic greatness.